Girdle-tailed lizards are diurnal and insectivorous. They are terrestrial, mostly inhabiting crevices in rocky terrain, although at least one species digs burrows. They have flattened heads and bodies, and are distinguished by a heavy armour of osteoderms and large, rectangular, scales, arranged in regular rows around the body and tail. As the common name implies, many species have rings of spines on the tail, that aid in wedging the animal into sheltering crevices, and also in fighting off predators.
Most species have four limbs, but those in the genus Chamaesaura are almost entirely limbless, with only tiny spikes in place of the hind limbs. The family includes both egg-laying and ovoviviparous species.